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  • Writer's pictureGenia Young

Tips to Cross the Creative Desert

Sometimes our creativity seems to have deserted us, leaving us wanting.

It´s no secret that engaging in art making and other creative expressions is known to have many health benefits and can contribute to our overall sense of well-being. Yet, creative work can also be associated with feelings of frustration, insecurity or fear. Despite the archetype of the tortured artist who is both profound and prolific, these feelings can derail our creativity.

Although art therapy comes with the disclaimer, ¨No art therapy skills required.¨, we can not ignore that each of us has our own personal art history that often includes what Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection has referred to as ¨creativity scars¨. Building a client´s creative confidence is sometimes the first step in the therapeutic process.

“Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgement, sorrow, shame.”

- Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection.

Whether you consider yourself a professional artist or you are looking for ways to enjoy the benefits of a creative practice, here are a few tips to embrace artful living.

Tip #1 - Ignite the Awe Factor

Awe is a complex emotion mixed with curiosity and fear, wonder and surprise, reverence and admiration. It is the ¨feeling¨ we get in the presence of something that challenges our understanding of the world (What is Awe? Greater Good Magazine). Dacher Keltner in his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, explains how awe is elicited from a variety of experiences, both the seemingly supernatural and the everyday. You only need to be curious and notice.

¨Creativity thrives under curiosity – not passion¨ -Elizabeth Gilbert

A sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves is not only awe-inspiring but can relieve anxiety. Awe experiences can also increase positive emotions or feelings that enhance our creativity.

¨ What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? ¨ - W.H. Davis, Leisure

Tip #2 - Tap Into the Five Senses

Think of creativity as a whole body experience. Gretchen Rubin (author of Happiness Project and Life in 5 Senses) says that by making direct contact with the world (through vivid sensory experiences), instead of being stuck in our heads, we can generate new ideas and connections that not only spark our imagination but can help us feel grounded and refreshed. See 30 Ways to Boost Your Creativity Using the 5 Senses.

Tip #3 - Mix It Up

Novelty, experimentation, and play are as important as discipline and good habits. Try changing the materials or process you typically use, and even your surroundings. Join a class and learn a new skill. Returning to a ¨beginner's mind¨ and trying something new can sometimes relieve the pressure to be good at it.

"This is also the real secret to the arts: always be a beginner....In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the experts mind, there are few. "Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryū Suzuki

While knowledge and knowing can bring a sense of safety, comfort, and confidence, it is rarely where the magic happens.

Tip #4 - Go Back to the Beginning (Back to Basics)

What if our way out and forward is to return to our creative roots- childhood. You may have to go way back to the very beginning but there was a time when creativity was a sixth sense and you made art with abandon. You can not rewind the clock but you can channel your childhood creative spirit. How did you express your creativity as a child? What were your sources of inspiration?

Back to the beginning could also mean back to basic skills. Basic skills exercises offer simplicity, repetition, visual evidence of progress, as well as feelings of productivity and success. The structure of a class (ex. basic line drawing, clay hand building) where someone guides you through the process may also relieve stress. Foundational skills make it easier to express our ideas. No time in your schedule? There are plenty of online options like Skillshare and Domestika.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” - Pablo Picasso

Tip #5 - Create Constraints (Thinking ´Inside´ the Box)

While sometimes we are forced to work against the limits of time or resources, embracing the limits that are imposed on you or imposing your own, can actually boost your creativity. The challenge of working within constraints inspires innovation and lessens the paralysis of choice.

Artist Phil Hansen knows firsthand the value of creative limitations. As an art student Phil Hansen´s style of pointillism led to nerve damage in his hand that could have ended his career permanently until he decided to ¨embrace the shake¨ and discovered a new approach to art making that opened up a world of possibilities that never would have been available to him otherwise. He now speaks publicly encouraging other artists to think ¨inside the box¨ .

"We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.” - Phil Hanson

Tip #6 - Rest and Reset

In Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smiths' book, Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, she introduces seven types of rest that all people need, one of which is creative rest. She states, ¨We experience creative rest whenever we appreciate beauty (nature, artwork, music).¨ Essentially, creative rest is about reacquainting ourselves with the awe and wonder in life.

Ann Kumpf, occupational therapist, describes creative rest as ¨beauty re-fueling your soul¨. She offers a checklist for determining if you need creative rest, which may include feelings of being unappreciated or undervalued, and a general lack of satisfaction in life. Steven Sagmeister is a bit more literal. He speaks of the value of a ¨creative sabbatical¨ and embracing idleness as part of the creative process.

¨…The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” -Tim Kreider, NY Times

While rest is often thought of as a passive act, like sleeping or napping, it can also include active rest which includes restorative activities such as yoga, stretching, and walking. Active rest applies to our minds too. Sometimes we need a brain break, like daydreaming. Different studies have shown that daydreaming or ¨mind wandering¨ can have many tangible benefits for problem solving, creativity, and even improvement in mood (see What Daydreaming Does to Your Mind ). Active daydreaming can even help us connect with our intuition.

Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry describes rest as radical communal care and personal liberation. She speaks of ways to reimagine rest within our daily lives and resist the grind culture.

“You were not just born to center your entire existence on work and labor. You were born to heal, to grow, to be of service to yourself and community, to practice, to experiment, to create, to have space, to dream, and to connect.” ― Tricia Hersey, Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto

Tip #7- Make A Date with Yourself

Preparation is one of the first steps of the creative process. Block time in your calendar (actually write it down) and set the mood (this includes the space and materials). Consider what will invite your muse.

This also requires practicing firm boundaries. Let the people in your life know this is an uninterrupted time. If you have to cancel for any reason, make sure you reschedule as you would with any other important date.

Tip #8 - Maintain Creative Habits

Again, if you want to keep romancing the muse, you must put in the time. Dance choreographer, Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit: Learn and Use It for Life), prefers to think of creativity as a habit. Habits start by doing something repeatedly (consistently), not perfectly. Do it, and then do it again as often as possible. Morning routines or rituals, meditation, daily mandalas, or mixed-media journals can be a good start.

Tip #9 - Process vs. Outcome

In art therapy we often talk about prioritizing the process over outcome. This is easier said than done but there are ways we can learn to lower the stakes and enjoy the experience of art making again. Some examples of exercises that can help with this process are blind contour drawing, ¨ugly art¨, and scribble drawing.

Tip #10 - Drawing On Community

Conventional thought says creativity flourishes in solitude and while alone time has its place in the creative process, inspiration comes from outside of ourselves. Find your community (ex. artist friends, mentors, companions); co-create (ex. classes open studio art therapy groups); share your work (public spaces, online communities); participate in life (ex. visit a new community or exhibit); volunteer to teach or share your skills with others. The benefits of drawing on community-stimulation, connection, support- can enrich both your life and your art.

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An Invitation

Creativity does not belong to artists. It exists within all of us. The creative process can give us access to new ways to solve problems, make connections, and experience a greater sense of power and freedom. Ready to take the next steps in dealing with complicated feelings that get in the way of you being your most actualized self? Visit me at to schedule a free consultation.


Genia Young is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Board Certified Art Therapist and Certified Art Therapy Supervisor in southern California. For more information about individual art therapy services, art-based clinical supervision or creative coaching, visit to schedule your free consultation.

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